Graffiti messages tend to be clichéd, obscene or vapid, but once every few years I get a smile on my face when I see “Klaatu barada nikto!” scrawled on some random bit of fence or wall. It’s a critical line in Robert Wise’s 1951 science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.
In a decade when countless movies showed the good people of Earth being threatened by evil aliens (e.g., Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, The War of the Worlds) Edmund H. North’s subtle, intelligent screenplay inverted the usual premise. In this case, a flying saucer lands in Washington DC and disgorges a literate, moral, peace-loving and thoughtful alien (Michael Rennie, in his finest hour) who spends most of his movie under siege by petty, violent and backward Earthlings.
The alien, Klaatu, hopes to persuade humanity to renounce war and atomic weaponry, but mankind isn’t ready to agree (This is wistfully conveyed to Klaatu early in the film by Frank Conroy, in an uncredited, quietly powerful performance as an advisor to The POTUS). After an initial brutish encounter with the military, Klaatu escapes and decides he must learn more about humanity if he is going to save it. He adopts the name of Carpenter (ahem) and moves to a rooming house run by a widow and her boy (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray, who are believable and appealing). The two of them give Klaatu’s hope for humanity, leading him to confide in them about his true nature and mission.
The ingenious premise of the script allows this film to be as much social comment as science fiction. As the alien visitor watches human beings interact, tours the graves of Arlington Cemetery and reflects on our greatest president’s words at the Lincoln Memorial, we see ourselves through his sadder and wiser eyes, with profound emotional effect.
The special effects are solid for the period, with the Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced flying saucer being a particular highlight. Yet the effects don’t overwhelm the story or acting as they often have in more recent zillion dollar CGI-laden sci-fi films. Bernard Herrman’s score is also appropriate to the visuals and themes of the movie. All of this is a credit to Robert Wise’s ability to maintain tone throughout a film. To a number of film buffs, Robert Wise is the hack who destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons, a company man who did whatever project he was assigned but had no artistic vision of his own. If you hold to that negative view of Wise, you really should watch this movie, observe how well it is constructed, see how consistently excellent are the performances, and note how efficiently and effectively the story is told. Wise won Oscars for other films, but in my opinion this movie best demonstrates his considerable skills as a film maker.
Here is the cleverly crafted trailer to this masterpiece of science fiction:
p.s. for trivia fans. There are two scientific errors in the script and they both appear on the same scene. Klaatu, whose ship we see approaching our solar system from far away during the opening credits, tells the POTUS’ advisor that he is from another part of the galaxy that is 250 million miles away (oops!) and that he knows how to talk like a contemporary American because he has been monitoring Earth’s radio programs on his own planet (double oops!).